Fifty Years Since the 1967 Detroit Riots Meet the Cast Bringing the Civil Unrest to the Big Screen
It’s been fifty years since the Detroit riots rocked the city in the summer of ’67, but some of these themes feel all too familiar. Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow [The Hurt Locker, and Zero, Dark Thirty] tells the powerful story of one of the darkest moments during civil unrest in her new film Detroit. Centered around the murders of three African-American teens at the Algiers Motel, this gripping crime drama has a strong ensemble cast including John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Anthony Mackie, Laz Alonso, Tyler James Williams and Ben O’Toole. Risen talked with the cast about meeting the men behind their characters, working without a full sacript, and the emotional subject matter.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine in Beverly Hills, California
Risen Magazine: How much research went into the film to try to recreate the atmosphere of Detroit at the time of the riots?
Laz Alonzo: Well the interesting thing was that Kathryn [Bigelow] actually spent a tremendous amount of time before filming this with Congressman John Conyers and getting information from him and what he went through. As far as the material that ended up on the page, it was heavily influenced by his personal account. I tried my best to do as much research as possible to get his voice down, to get his diction, his cadence, his rhythm as close as I could possibly find it, but more than anything it was working backwards. Most of the material that I found was him in today’s times and just trying to work my way back to fifty years ago.
I think one of the main things I found in my research was back then you had pretty much two styles of leadership. You had Martin [Luther King] and you had Malcolm [X] and on that day, Congressman Conyers was trying to Martin-handle the crowd and they wanted Malcolm. The straw had already broken the camel’s back and people needed to be heard. And that’s what we witnessed in this film.
RM: Algee, what was it like meeting Larry Reed, the real man behind the character you portray? And maybe speak a bit about his band The Dramatics and how his dream shifted after the incident at the Algiers Motel.
Algee Smith: I didn’t get to meet Larry until the last week of shooting when we went to Detroit. First of all, he doesn’t talk to everybody. So, meeting him was just a blessing in itself. When he opened his door, he just bust laughing. He was smiling. He was like, “You’re going to play me real good. I can see it.” We just had this moment, and I sat down. I talked to him for three hours on his couch. He was showing me all the pictures. He let me feel the crack in his skull. He was showing me all the gashes and everything still on him. It was kind of challenging to connect on that aspect while filming since I’ve never been that brutally beaten by a police officer. I know how it feels to be harassed as a black man. I know how it feels to be talked down to from a police officer and I know how it feels to be looked at a certain way when you walk into somewhere. But, we had to try our best; to just muster up that feeling of how were they feeling. There’s no words.
I feel like Larry represents redemption. He represents an average person that can understand just having the simplest dream, whether that is for him to be on stage at the Fox Theater or whatever your dream may be. And so, he was humanized, in that sense. The Dramatics gave him purpose, they gave him a dream, and he was so innocent. His innocence in the Algiers Motel plays a part too because Larry had no faults. He’d never been to court. He’d never been to jail. He was a completely innocent person being put through this horrific situation. And so, I feel like they humanized him, and then he got dehumanized so much when he had to drop down to his knees, and start praying for his life. And, watching this, and hearing that his best friend got murdered that night, and everything just stripped of him to the point where he just felt like, “The only place I can go is the church, if there is a God. If I can find peace here, then I got it.”
I think one of the main things I found in my research was back then you had pretty much two styles of leadership. You had Martin Luther King and you had Malcolm X and on that day, Congressman Conyers was trying to Martin-handle the crowd and they wanted Malcolm.
RM: Jacob, both you and Will Poulter, who plays the racist police officer, worked together on The Maze Runner and now you share the screen in this film too. There is a very poignant scene between your characters. How was this handled with your past friendship, but the hate that needed to be in the moment?
Jacob Latimore: Every time I speak about it I get kind of emotional. I commend Will for really digging deep into this, because he’s one of the nicest guys I ever met. You know what I mean? So, for him to play such an evil person, he really dug deep for it. Every time he got on set, he tried to be as serious as possible. But, I think when we got to that scene, he couldn’t take it anymore. He broke down. He literally ran out of the building, and then Algee went after him. I wanted to go after him as well, but I wanted to stay in the scene. I wanted to get it over with. I think Algee was out there just embracing him.
AS: When I went out there to hug him, he was crying so hard, I just collapsed, and I started crying with him. Will asked Kathryn [Bigelow], “How many more times do we have to shoot this scene?”
JL: As soon as they said, “Cut,” we just embraced for like five to ten minutes. It was exhausting. That was probably the hardest for me, just knowing our relationship off-screen. It’s so like, “Bro, wussup? Where you going? Where you at?” But, it also made me more comfortable to do those types of scenes as well.
RM: Speaking of the scenes. I understand you didn’t even have a full script? How did that impact the way you told this story?
AS: Usually every movie set I’m on, I get the full script. I know exactly who my other characters are and who the characters I’m not interacting with are. But, she [Kathryn] kept us in that place where we just don’t know. My agent would call saying, “So, what’s happening on set? What’s going on with the movie? What’s the script like?” I’m like, “I don’t know. Okay? Stop calling me. As soon as I know, I will tell you.” [Laughter] I didn’t get the full script until literally the last couple of weeks of shooting. But, when we see the movie, it was worth it.
When I went out there to hug him, he was crying so hard, I just collapsed, and I started crying with him.
RM: Ben, what was it like getting into the mindset of the police officers involved in the Algiers Motel incident?
Ben O’Toole: What’s that expression, “Evil thrives when good men do nothing”, or something like that. They [police force] could have been, should have been, checked on this and they weren’t. So it went to that degree; it went as far as it could go because it was allowed to. In approaching this we sort of had to tackle the idea of, “What do you do psychologically in order to be able to do this to another human being? To do these things to someone else?” It’s kind of really tricky, because we often don’t do them [the horrific acts] to other people, or what we see as people. It is done to objects, or to things, so it’s this level of dehumanization – that’s a huge sort of thing that we looked at with this level of aggression. The things that these guys were doing to the young men was dehumanizing to the point that there was no sort of moral [conviction] and they were free to do what they wanted. Leading up to shoot we trained with police officers. We had quite a bit of help from the Boston police force. We found ourselves constantly kind of saying, “It’s not an anti-cop film. There are a couple of bad eggs that you guys put a badge on and at the end of the day, this is not opinion, these are facts. This happened.” We’re just telling that story.
RM: Even though this summer marked fifty years since the Detroit riots in the summer of 1967, what can we learn from the story and especially along the lines of our moral code and ethics?
Laz: Because this incident happened fifty years ago, and it’s not a story of today’s time, hopefully it will allow a broader audience to come in and learn something historical. Because it is a factual, historical movie, it’s not there to beat you over the head, to make you feel guilty, or tell you, you’re bad and you’re good. No, this happened in a moment in history that we’re not aware of. I think that the key learning moment here, the teachable moment here for those that watch it today is, “Okay, let’s connect it to the similarities that’s going on right now.” This happened fifty years ago. What can we do? Let’s talk about what we can do to change this narrative.
Tyler James Williams: I think there’s this weird percentage question where there’s always this argument of, The majority of these characters were running away. They perceived a danger and tried to get away from it and were killed. So, when talking about police brutality, there’s also this recurring theme of people choosing flight and still dying, and that kind of gets rid of this whole perceived threat argument. [My character] took two shells to the back. You don’t shoot people in the back when they’re running away from you. That is also a part of this conversation. We came to this boiling point and people were really brought down to their primitive instincts, “What am I going to do here?” And the reasons we have the laws we have in place is that when something like that happens, we can quickly differentiate to what we’re supposed to do, and if it’s not happening properly.